October 12, 2011

Coming out, and femme as a genderqueer identity

Hey gender blenders,

Yesterday was National Coming Out Day in the U.S. I rather like that there is an actual day because I honestly don't have a specific anniversary for "the day I came out." I mean, it's not like we just make one announcement and "ta-da!" we're permanently out. Not even close. We could come out every day for the rest of our lives, and still be stuffed back in the closet any second, thanks to a case of mistaken identity. (You know, when people assume you're straight and/or gender conforming.) We constantly face a dance with the closet door--at work, sauntering down the street, playing hopscotch with the other kids in the neighborhood, and even with friends and family.

So what day counts as THE day? It's not even so easy to use the day you came out to yourself. There wasn't one day. It was/is a re-vision process that doesn't really have an ultimate endpoint. I'm not suggesting that real conclusions aren't made--they are--and I don't mean that these conclusions are any less significant or meaningful than some hypothetical endpoint would be--they are. However, I am suggesting that identity, desire, and gender are not static in how they are experienced or in how they are culturally defined.

Case and point--I recently picked up a copy of Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity, and I've hit upon something that has vastly changed how I think about femme identity in regard to myself and in general. All it took was the title of one of the essays (actually more like a two-sided interview).

Femme has always been a simultaneously comfortable and troubling identity for me to carry, and if pressed, I would give the long-winded explanation that I am a radical feminist, femme queerelle with an androgynous aesthetic. Oh Sally, that is more than a little awkward and befuddling. I've tried to bookend femme so it's not read as feminine, at least not straightforwardly. Imagine my startled joy at finding what I have actually felt articulated--that femme can be genderqueer even when the one expressing it identifies as female.

I subscribe pretty closely to Butlerian (as in Judith Butler) gender/queer theory, so why wasn't the nonessential, arbitrary "connection" between femaleness/femininity/femme-ness obvious? Gender is a spectrum of performativity that materializes through actions and stylizations; a spectrum that only gains gendered meaning through culture. Meaning that if there is no essential connection between femaleness/femininity/femme-ness, if the "connection" is all fabricated and assumed by culture, why can't their connection also be queer?

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